The Relative Parity Of The NL East

Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) throws in the second inning against the San Diego Padres at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE

We're about two months into the season. A third of the way done. Albert Pujols is bad; the Baltimore Orioles are good. Cats and dogs living together. Let's help each other figure this out.

And the National League East is almost upside down. There were supposed to be four contenders for the division title this year, so it's not like its unexpected anarchy over there. But when you have the Mets near the top and the Phillies at the bottom, that qualifies as topsy-turvy by most rational standards. And dismissing the Phillies as being "at the bottom" is doing them a disservice, though, as they're still just five games back. A quick spin around the division entering Monday:

Team Runs Scored Runs Allowed Differential Pythagorean Record Actual Record Games back
Nationals 185 154 +31 28-19 29-18 -
Mets 204 223 -19 22-26 27-21 2.5
Marlins 191 195 -4 24-24 26-22 3.5
Braves 234 214 +20 27-22 26-23 4
Phillies 200 195 +5 25-24 25-24 5

The difference between first and second place in the the AL West is greater than five games. The same goes for the NL West. But in the NL East, five games separate last place from first. Unlike the freakish parity of the AL East, the run differentials of the NL East suggest there should be three tiers: the Nationals and Braves at the top, the Phillies and Marlins in the middle, and the Mets near the bottom, where they have a condo.

But expected records are useful, not orthodoxy. The Mets don't have to give their wins back at the end of the year if they keep getting outscored. And the Braves are in the middle of a seven-game losing streak, so they probably don't care a lick about Pythagoras right now unless he can pitch better than Mike Minor. Which he can.

It's about to get a little weirder over the next couple of weeks thanks to the unbalanced schedule. Neither the Nationals and Marlins play a team from another division until interleague play starts up on June 8, and the Mets, Braves, and Phillies all have one series each outside the division over the next ten days. The cozy cluster of teams will start to drift away from each other with series wins and losses, sweeps and being-swepts.

The Phillies have to be freaking out about Roy Halladay's shoulder right now, and there's still no sign of Ryan Howard or Chase Utley. The Braves are wondering where in the heck their shutdown bullpen (and starting-pitching depth) went. The Marlins are getting the help they expected from Giancarlo Stanton and their rotation, but they know that Omar Infante can't continue to be the only other hitter doing well. The Mets did better with their run differential in May, but that only meant that they scored as many as they allowed. The Nationals ...

...

And when you try to do the same kind of concern trolling for the Nationals, it's hard. Only Adam LaRoche is outhitting expectations. Ryan Zimmerman should hit better, Mike Morse and Jayson Werth should be back soon, and Bryce Harper looks like the rare teenager who can be super productive instead of merely adequate. There isn't a pitcher in the rotation skating by with fluky strikeout/walk ratios -- they've all been extremely impressive.

The standings are close. But they might not be for long. After taking three of four from the Phillies and sweeping the Braves, the Nationals end their road trip in Miami. The standings say the Nationals are the team to beat. The expected standings say they're the team to beat. And they'll get better when they get healthier. Just a few games separate first from last place right now in the NL East, but that won't last. The Nationals are doing this without a middle of the order; when they get theirs back, they'll be the team likeliest to pull away.

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